Kazimir Malevich, Black Square (1915)

The many deaths of art

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IMAGE: Kazimir Malevich, The Black Square (1915)

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A moderated panel discussion held by the Platypus Affiliated Society on Sat, 2.23.13 at the New School.

Video from the event

The “death of art” has been a recurring theme within aesthetic and philosophical discourse for over two centuries. At times, this “death” has been proclaimed as an accomplished fact; at others, artists themselves have taken the “death of art” as a goal to be accomplished. So while this widely perceived “death” is lamented by many as a loss, it is celebrated by others as a moment of life renewed. For them, art is all the better for having disburdened itself of the baggage of outmoded modernist ideologies. Insofar as the “death” of longstanding cultural traditions has in the past typically been understood to signal a deeper crisis in society at large, however, the meaning of death necessarily takes on a different aspect today — especially when the tradition in question is modernism, the so-called the “tradition of the new” (Harold Rosenberg). Because the notions of “death” and “crisis” appear to belong to the very edifice of modernity that has just been rejected, these too are are to be jettisoned as part of its conventional yoke. Modernity itself having become passé, even the notion of art’s “death” would seem to have died along with modernism.

We thus ask our panelists not merely whether art is at present “dead,” but also if traditions are even permitted the right to perish in conservative times. If some once held that the persistence of philosophy indicated the persistence of obsolete social conditions, does the persistence of art signal ongoing social conditions that ought to have long ago withered away? If so, what forms of political and artistic practice would be sufficient to realize art, and in what ways would realizing art signal something beyond art? Marx felt that the increasing worldliness of philosophy in his time — heralded by the culmination of philosophy in Hegel — demanded not only the end of philosophy, but also that the world itself become philosophical. If avant-garde movements once declared uncompromising war on art (Aleksei Gan) in order to tear down the barrier between art and life, would the end or overcoming of art not similarly require that the world itself become artistic?

The famous "99 Percent" Occupy Bat Signal

The famous “99 Percent” Occupy Bat Signal (Nov. 2011)

QUESTIONS

1) Recently, Paul Mason of the BBC claimed that Occupy signals the death of contemporary art. This seems to articulate a general and significant (if vague) sensibility that certain artistic claims and theories over the past half century have become untenable. Is contemporary art dead today, and if so, what specifically has died? Is it art as such that has died, or just its present configuration? Even if art is not dead, then what is the significance of claims that it is? What has changed, and what new forms may be opening up for art in its alleged “death”?

2) If Occupy does have anything to do with the art’s death, then what extent does the idea of the “death of art” participate in extra-aesthetic, non-artistic discourses (e.g. is this claim social or artistic in nature)? Is the “death of art” related to other post-mortem diagnoses in other fields in social life, such as the “end of history,” “end of ideology,” or figures of thought such as the postindustrial, the postmodern, the post-political? How does Platypus’ slogan “The Left is Dead! — Long Live the Left!” relate to the claim of the death of art, if at all? If the Left is truly dead, would this have any repercussions for the vitality of art? Would art even be possible in the absence of the Left?

3) Given the many deaths art is said to have gone through over the past 200 or so years — and its “death” would seem to have meant many different things depending on the situation at various moments — what does the narrative of the “death of art” look like to us from our current historical vantage point? Has art been successfully self-consciously killed, or fulfilled, or has art died due to a failure to complete its project? Adorno famously remarked that it is not entirely clear whether art can still claim a right to exist, calling into question whether our times are worthy of art in the first place. If this idea has any purchase today, then would it be a fair judgment to say that the declaration “art is dead” by now feels extremely repetitive? Has it become an empty claim, since it would appear to have died so many times before? Was the claim even that daring and provocative in the past?

Occupy Museums at MoMA (2011), protesting the Sotheby's lockout

Occupy Museums at MoMA (2011), protesting the Sotheby’s lockout

PANELISTS

Julieta Aranda was born in Mexico City, and currently lives and works between Berlin and New York. Central to Aranda’s multidimensional practice are her involvement with circulation mechanisms and the idea of a “poetics of circulation”; the possibility of a politicized subjectivity through the perception and use of time, and the notion of power over the imaginary. Julieta Aranda’s work has been exhibited internationally in venues such as Witte de With (2013), Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Villa Croce, Genova (2013), ArtPostions, Miami Basel (2012), MACRO Roma (2012) Documenta 13 (2012), N.B.K. (2012), Gwangju Biennial (2012), Venice Biennial (2011), Stroom den Haag (2011), “Living as form,” Creative Time, NY (2011), Istanbul Biennial (2011), Portikus, Frankfurt (2011), New Museum (2010), Solomon Guggenheim Museum (2009), New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY (2010), Kunstverein Arnsberg (2010), MOCA Miami (2009), Witte de With (2010), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2007), 2nd Moscow Biennial (2007) MUSAC, Spain (2010 and 2006), and VII Havanna Biennial; amongst others. As a co-director of e-flux together with Anton Vidokle, Julieta has developed the projects Time/Bank, Pawnshop, and e-flux video rental, all of which started in the e-flux storefront in New York, and have traveled to many venues worldwide.

Gregg Horowitz is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and Adjoint Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He writes on aesthetics and the philosophy of art, psychoanalysis, and political theory. His publications include the books Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life (Stanford, 2001) and The Wake of Art: Philosophy, Criticism and the Ends of Taste (Routledge, 1998, with Arthur C. Danto and Tom Huhn) and, recently, articles on “Absolute Bodies: The Video Puppets of Tony Oursler” (Parallax, 2010), “The Homeopathic Image, or, Trauma, Intimacy and Poetry,” (Critical Horizons, 2010), and “A Late Adventure of the Feelings: Loss, Trauma and the Limits of Psychoanalysis” (in The Trauma Controversy: Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Dialogues, SUNY Press, 2009).

Paul Mattick, who teaches philosophy at Adelphi University, is the author of Art in Its Time and co-author, with Katy Siegel, of Artworks: Money. He has written criticism for Arts, Art in America, Artforum, The Nation, and The Brooklyn Rail, as well as catalogue essays for exhibitions at a number of museums and galleries.

Yates McKee is an organizer with Strike Debt and co-editor of the magazine Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy. His work as an art critic has appeared in venues including October, Grey Room, Texte Zur Kunst, Oxford Art Journal, The Nation, and Waging Nonviolence. He recently co-edited a volume for Zone Books entitled Sensible Politics: The Visual Cultures of Nongovernmental Activism.

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